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Am Sci. 1974 May-Jun;62(3):282-92.

Human population and the global environment.



A stable ecosystem resists large, rapid changes in the sizes of its constituent populations which upset the orderly flow of energy and nutrients. An early example of such alteration was the conversion to desert of the rich Tigris and Euphrates valleys through erosion and salt accumulation resulting from faulty irrigation practices that caused the downfall of the great Mesopotamian civilization. Overgrazing and poor cultivation practices have contributed over the millennia to the expansion of the Sahara Desert. Attempts to cultivate too intensively the fragile soil of tropical rainforest areas are suspected of being in part responsible for the collapse of the Mayan civilization. The 19th century Irish potato famine because of heavy reliance of the Irish population on a single, highly productive crop led to 1.5 million deaths when the potato monoculture, a simple agricultural ecosystem, fell victim to a fungus. Modern agriculture's desire to maximize yields per acre are worrisome ecologically (increases in the use of pesticides and inorganic fertilizers). The liabilities include that as larger land areas are farmed the tracts available for reservoirs of species diversity and for natural ecosystems become smaller. Pressure to expand agriculture to steep hillsides unsuitable for cultivation has led to serious erosion in Indonesia, and increasing slash-and-burn practices are destroying tropical forests in the Philippines. The enormous expansion of wheat or rice monoculture has increased the probability of epidemic crop failure from insects or disease. 37% of the world's population is under 15 years of age which means that population will grow for 50-70 years more before leveling off. Despite a declining growth rate population would still increase 30% or more during the transition to stability. Zero global population growth is required for a prosperous and environmentally sustainable civilization.

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